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As I write this, I’m sitting in my apartment in the East Village, having just come from a workshop at NYU with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. I’m just one of eight students she selected for her class and I’m pretty happy to have made the cut because any tiny distinction feels like a triumph at this point in my life. I’m over 50 and trying to find my way back to a writing career after 20 years out of the game.
My former writing partner and I started out in TV animation back in the days before Bojack Horseman and Big Mouth, when cartoons were for little kids, not something adult men in their 30s obsessed over on Reddit. We were accepted into the Warner Bros. Television Workshop and moved on up into sitcoms where we piled up some sweet writing credits on a few credible shows. But then I met my future husband and the fierce allure of being a sitcom writer succumbed to the allure of married life and the creative project of raising a kid. My husband was also enjoying a solid sitcom writing career, and I couldn’t visualize how two of us keeping those long, unpredictable hours could possibly keep a child alive at home. I stepped away from the business, thinking it would be a short pause.
Time passed and I decided the time was right to get back into TV. I now had all kinds of new piquant things to say about motherhood and marriage and I couldn’t wait for the industry to welcome me back with open arms. I wrote a spec and an original pilot and with the help of an agent/friend, got lots of great meetings…but no jobs. My writing was getting me through the door — but somehow, I couldn’t seal the deal. Was I suddenly too old? Too loud? Too piquant? I puzzled over this. One day you’re a young writer, a fresh voice. A few years later, with additional wisdom and experience, you’ve somehow got less to say? I wrote more material and again, the same results. Not only did the industry not care I was back, it hadn’t even noticed I had left. Meanwhile, my husband was bopping right along career-wise. While I was eager to work, he and I both felt it would be douchey for him to give me a job. In the politics of this business it would undermine me as an artist and communicate that he was the only person willing to take me seriously. Which, as it turned out, was pretty much the truth. My formerly intact ego was dislodged and (message received, TV industry) I gave up.
I love the theater and just as we were sending our kid off to college, I wrote a play. It was quickly accepted into a playwriting festival and the experience was enthralling. People were so respectful of me, so encouraging. And I found myself surrounded by writers of all ages, shapes and colors. My husband and I decided I should apply to NYU Tisch for an MFA in dramatic writing, an incredible program where you’re expected to write film, TV and plays. I’d always regretted not doing grad school and he’d said he’d tag along if I got in; we’d have a weird adventure together because, well, we’re weird. Of course, just as I found out I was accepted at Tisch, he heard his pilot would go to series on ABC. He had to stay in Los Angeles. Now it would really be an adventure.
So, here I am alone in New York without my husband/best friend who couldn’t be more supportive. When I tell him I’m grateful he rolls his eyes and insists that I shouldn’t be. He owes me — and that besides, he’s actually secretly teeming with resentment (which I believe). These months apart have not been easy for either of us. But it’s endurable, mostly because we’re both so busy. On my worst days I tell myself to keep my head down and push forward, appreciating the privilege of this opportunity which NYU, my husband and my own hard work have given me. And truthfully, when I’m writing, I’m loving every minute of it. I told my playwriting instructor that I want to write about how women are marginalized as they grow older. The compliments dry up, what was once witty is now abrasive and, worst of all, we become invisible. She seems interested in my story, giving me hope that others might be as well.
Unsolicited advice: If you’re a woman in the business, be careful when stepping away from your career — even briefly. It might not be there waiting when you come looking for it. If you’re trying to get back in, your takeaway from my experience shouldn’t be that grad school is the answer (though maybe!), it’s that you should try new things with the hope of producing different results. Write a play (showrunners are reading plays now) or a blog (Chuck Lorre gave a mom a job after reading her blog), films, essays, whatever. Apply to every diversity/inclusion/equity writing program you can (like the WGA Writer’s Access Project) as well as contests and festivals. As for the politics of the business? My douchey husband hired me as a co-writer on the Valentine’s Day episode of his show (airing Tuesday night) and I’m good with it because, after all, connections are how TV works and because my ego is finally, once again, intact.
Ellen (Svaco) Doyle is a former TV writer whose credits include the original Murphy Brown and Living Single. She is married to Tim Doyle, creator and executive producer of ABC’s The Kids Are Alright. Her Valentine’s Day-themed episode airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
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